The Novgorod Codex

A page from the Novgorod Codex

A palimpsest is a writing surface that has been written on at least twice; the original text has been erased (at least partially) and the new text added on top. Usually the writing surface is parchment, which is made from animal skin and therefore more durable than paper or papyrus–though palimpsests written on papyrus have survived.

This seems straightforward: until modern times, writing materials were scarce and expensive, and authors would often wash away (with milk and oat bran) an unimportant text and use the “blank” surface for their writing project. The problems (or challenges, if you prefer) start when the overwritten material (the “underscript”) has not been completely erased and is in fact important.
In case readers might think that palimpsests are rare, wholesale destruction of old volumes has occurred in periods during which new writing materials were extremely expensive and hard to find: after the collapse of the Roman Empire, for example, so many biblical manuscripts were overwritten that the practice was forbidden by ecclesiastical order in 691.
And then there are the important manuscripts that exist only as overwritten material–the Archimedes Palimpsest is a famous instance, as is the Sinaiticus Palimpsest.
In the past, the deciphering of underscripts was mainly a matter of a keen eye and discipline. But new technologies, such as ultraviolet photography and the manipulation of digitized images, are making it possible to read very faint underscripts. In fact, the process of decipherment can be seen as emblematic of the scholarly struggle to reconstruct lost versions of stories through analysis of the newer materials that replaced them (as was done to reconstruct the Q Gospel from its surviving text in the Synoptic Gospels).
Some double palimpsests survive–the writing surface has been overwritten twice–and we now possess a hyper-palimpsest, the Novgorod Codex–which consists of three wooden tablets covered with wax that has been overwritten hundreds of times.
Discovered in July 2000 in Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia (first mentioned, 859 A.D.) the Codex dates from the first quarter of the 11th Century and perhaps even from the end of the 10th, making it the oldest text composed  in East Slavic discovered so far. Thus the Codex is contemporary with the reign of Grand Prince Yaroslavl, who controlled both Novgorod and Kiev, and reflects the society of Russia during the time of its Christianization (official date, 988).
To provide further historical perspective, Russia’s conversion to Christianity occurred during the reign of Emperor Basil II, the last great emperor of the middle Byzantine Empire; he brought Byzantine power to its apex and, intensely devout, encouraged missionary efforts in areas lying north of the Black Sea. The Byzantines were Orthodox Christians, but their missionaries competed with adherents of Bogomilism, a gnostic faith which had its origins in the Balkans during the 10th Century.
The uppermost level of writing in the Codex (the so-called “basic text”) records the text of Psalms 75 and 76, written in the medieval dialect of Novgorod. The basic text has been read without difficulty, but the levels underneath it have presented a challenge unlike anything ever encountered during the decipherment of a palimpsest. Leading the efforts at decipherment is the linguist Andrey Zalizniak, Russia’s foremost expert on the Novgorod dialect. Zalizniak believes that the Codex contains traces of thousands of texts, written over a period of decades.
Zalizniak tackles the seemingly impossible challenge of reading the underscripts of the Codex by dividing the Codex into letter-sized sectors and searching for individual symbols in each section. After identifying letters at a certain position, he moves to the next sector and reconstructs its letters. In this way, he builds up “symbol chains” that eventually grow into words and sentences. Linguist Izabel Vallatton has repeated this process behind Zalizniak, confirming some of his shorter chains (20-30 symbols long).
Here is a partial list of the texts that Zalizniak has deciphered so far: 1) numerous psalms, 2) the beginning of the Apocalypse of John, 3) a so-far unknown tetralogy, From Paganism to Christ, 4) a fragment of the unknown text, Instructions of Alexander of Laodicea on Forgiveness of Sins, and 5) a fragment of the unknown text, Spiritual Instruction of the Father and the Mother to the Son. These last two texts Zalizniak believes were written by the schismatic monk Issakiy, who followed the teachings of a self-proclaimed prophet Alexander, who claimed God-like powers of salvation. The tenor of these teachings is Bogomil. Issakiy is apparently the author of the Codex, and it seems likely from some of the writing uncovered that he converted pagan Slavs to gnostic Christianity.
Why might any of this matter? Bogomilism survived into the 17th Century in the Balkans and has been linked to the development of Catharism in the Provence in the 13th Century. Byzantium went into sharp decline after the death of Basil II, but its missionaries prevailed in their struggle with Gnosticism and Russia today is Orthodox. Worth noting is the fact that the sack of Constantinople in 1204 occurred during the pontificate of Innocent III, who authorized the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. In short, the struggle between mainstream Christianity and Gnosticism lasted centuries and has had significant political and cultural consequences. The Novgorod Codex offers us a window onto an early chapter of that struggle.
Image: WikiCommons; Public Domain.
  1. July 29, 2011 at 7:22 am

    Very deep, thorough and wonderfully enlightening. I had no idea about the depths people have gone to in order to capture original texts, especially on fragile media. The way you masterfully weave the technologic aspect of discovering these lost texts and writings into such a rich and intricate religious struggle is beautiful. I am highly impressed and the wiser for having come to see your work.

    • July 29, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      eggstacee: your note & blog are beautifully written… thx for taking the time to read and comment! RT

  2. August 18, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Search palimpsest n a manuscript usually written on papyrus or parchment on which more than one text has been written with the earlier writing incompletely erased and still visible see . Also where was in common use reuse of writing media was less common because papyrus was cheaper and more expendable than costly parchment.

  1. August 25, 2011 at 4:53 am
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